An advocacy website is turning up the heat on City Pages over the ongoing controversy over the adult section of the classified-ad service Backpage.com and its link to child sex-trafficking.
VillageVoicePimp.com is making an "earnest request" of Minnesotans to "gently elbow" other advertisers in the Minneapolis alternative weekly to pressure City Pages' owner, Village Voice Media, to stop publishing adult ads via Backpage, which has been linked to underage prostitution by watchdog groups and law enforcement in the Twin Cities and across the country.
Sounds like Minnesota Nice for "boycott."
Backpage, the second-largest online classified site after Craigslist, is also owned by Village Voice Media, which operates City Pages and 12 other weeklies that accept its ads.
VillageVoicePimp.com is mostly the work of one tireless New Yorker named William Hayes. He decided to zero in on City Pages this week, he said, "because of all the action in your city right now."
In June, Minneapolis Police Sgt. Grant Snyder said that every one of the more than 20 child sex-trafficking cases he has worked on this year had ties to Backpage. Hayes also cited the recent calls by the Minneapolis and St. Paul city councils and both Hennepin and Ramsey county attorneys to discontinue the ads, as well as recent arrests of adults pimping juveniles and efforts to encourage hotel and motel employees in spotting underage victims.
Liz McDougall, general counsel for Village Voice Media, says the issue is an Internet-wide problem that won't go away, or even decrease, if Backpage stopped its adult ads, because the traffickers just move to one of thousands of other sites.
"Since Craigslist did it, there's been no evidence that child exploitation has decreased at all," said McDougall, who has a background in Internet law and cybercrime. "It's unfortunate that elected officials have focused first on Craigslist and then on Backpage as a silver-bullet solution."
Hayes' site lists City Pages advertisers from last week and this week, mostly small, local businesses. Pressure to stop advertising with City Pages poses a quandary for many of them, especially bars and nightclubs, including First Avenue, for which the weekly is the primary mode of print advertising.
"We have a really long, great relationship with City Pages, predating the Village Voice," said First Avenue's general manager, Nate Kranz. "We wouldn't just end it without really making sure there was something there. But [the issue] sounds worth looking into."
Kim Bartmann, owner of City Pages advertiser Bryant Lake Bowl, said that when she was publisher of the short-lived alt-weekly Siren in 2000, "we chose not to run sex ads because they've always been linked to teen prostitution."
Bartmann said she would consider pulling ads "if City Pages and the Village Voice company are knowingly publishing ads linked to child prostitution."
At least one advertiser, the Hennepin County Bar Association, has been swayed.
"Our contract ran out last week, and in light of statements [about Backpage] by the Minneapolis City Council and the Hennepin County attorney's office, we decided not to renew," said Mary-Margaret Zindren, executive director of the association.
Though just one person, Hayes is considered a grass-roots arm of a network working to combat child trafficking, said Kwame Fosu, policy director for the Rebecca Project, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that was instrumental in getting Craigslist's adult ads discontinued. "He's the one who knocks on doors, gets petitions signed and keeps track of everything going on."
Hayes isn't subtle about his position that anyone associated with Village Voice Media is complicit, calling the company's top editors "morally corrupt" and City Pages editor Kevin Hoffman a "heretofore ... hidden player in the child trafficking ad business."
McDougall has countered that if Backpage is shut down, pimps will migrate to online services owned by overseas companies, giving less tracking and enforcement control to American authorities.
"That's a lame response," Fosu said. "That's like if Disney World shuts down, the kids will go somewhere else, but there would be no place so well organized, with so much influence and everything in one place. Just like Disney, Backpage is a brand. All the pedophiles know to go to it, to look for code words like 'new girl in town,' which often means underage."
Village Voice attorney McDougall said that Backpage monitors its ads to spot and flag underage victims, and works with law enforcement as quickly as possible to save suspected victims who do wind up in ads.
"We answer a subpoena [for information about ads] within 24 hours," she said. The company receives about three to five subpoenas per day, she said.
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046